The Geekly Report: The African-Americans Who Helped Make America Nerdy

African-American nerds are often marginalized in geek culture, but only a fool would not recognize the importance and breadth of their contributions to our proud history. In honor of Black History Month, here are four of my favorite African-American geeks.

Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806) Nerds are known for their intellect and obsessions. Hobbies are not just hobbies, they’re a lifestyle. Banneker is, without doubt, one of America’s earliest nerds: not only a skilled clockmaker (the wooden clock he built was remarkably accurate and ran for 50 years—and he built it just by looking at a neighbor’s clock) but a successful self-taught astronomer. His observations soon enabled him to predict, accurately, solar and lunar eclipses. He eventually made an ephemeris (an astronomical almanac) that became widely used. To round off his all-American geek resume, Banneker assisted in calculating the boundaries for what is now Washington, D.C.

Dr. Herbert C. Smitherman (1937–2010) If you ever wondered who invented one of the products that make life way more convenient, the answer is probably Smitherman. Seriously, this man invented everything. Working for Procter and Gamble, Smitherman (who had a Ph.D in physical organic chemistry) invented Crest toothpaste, Bounce fabric softener, Crush soda, and Folgers coffee, among other things. Think about that: You could spend your whole day using items created by one man. But his passion for science went beyond inventing; he also founded Cincinnati’s Western Hills Design Technology High School, aimed at African-American students who excel in science and math. Smitherman is a legend—yet, tragically, does not have a Wikipedia entry. We owe our clean teeth and soft clothes to Dr. Smitherman. Any readers want to create his page?

Jackie Ormes (1911–1985) The comic-book industry is a man’s world, but Ormes defied all odds to become the first African-American woman cartoonist—the creator of Torchy Brown, Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger, and other comics, which appeared in newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier and The Chicago Defender. Ormes’ beloved comics covered everything from fashion to politics to pollution; Patty-Jo even became a doll. Her example still inspires African-American cartoonists and comic writers today; the Ormes Society, founded by comic-book creator Cheryl Lynn Eaton, is an organization that aims to promote black female comic-book creators and the inclusion of black women in the industry.

Mae Jemison, M.D. (1956– ) Mae Jemison is a badass—the first black woman to travel in space, she also holds nine honorary doctorates in addition to her B.S. from Stanford and M.D. from Cornell. She is a dancer, too. But to really top off her nerd cred . . . She appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation; she is a huge Trekkie and was actually inspired by Lieutenant Uhura.

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